By Vic Holtreman
Short version: Except for bad acting, a bad soundtrack, and a bad script, it's not that bad a movie.
The word on The Punisher was not good before the movie came out, and after it's release it only got worse. Forewarned is forearmed, so I passed on seeing it on the big screen. However... being a fan of comic books and the movies they inspire, combined with the fact that I had read a number of "Hey, it wasn't that bad." posts on various message boards, I decided to add it to my Netflix queue and give it a look.
The folks on the message boards were right, sort of. Except for the bad acting, a bad soundtrack, and a bad script, it's not that bad a movie.
The movie opens with what seems to be an illegal arms deal gone wrong. Macho posturing ensues, FBI shows up, and the "money man" for the deal, who seems to be rather green at this sort of thing, is killed. It turns out that the German arms supplier with the bad accent is our hero, Frank Castle (played by the terribly miscast Thomas Jane). Frank, it turns out, is going to retire from the FBI at the ripe old age of about 35. Why, we have no idea... he's a squeaky clean kind of guy so there's no possibility he's been skimming cash from drug busts. Maybe he became an agent at age 15 and the government has a killer pension plan.
After this we get to meet Frank's wife and son and there is a bit of time dedicated in an attempt to make us care about him and his family. Kind of works, but not especially well. It just all seems pretty "canned", and Thomas Jane's "kinder/gentler" voice seemed to me like a bad cross between Clint Eastwood and a therapist. Really cringe-worthy.
It turns out that the young man killed in during the arms deal sting was the son of an extremely rich businessman played by John Travolta, whose wealth is not all derived from legal enterprises. Travolta looks like he had fun playing the part, and as usual I enjoyed watching him on screen. It almost looked like he took his Vincent Vega character from Pulp Fiction uptown. Anyway, he doesn't take kindly to the death of his son, and his wife even less so. While he decides to have Castle killed, the wife chimes in with the command that Castle's entire family be executed.
Here's where we come to one part of the movie that I thought was a great concept... the idea of not only Castle's wife and son being killed, but his entire extended family: In-Laws, father, brothers, cousins, etc. The assassins show up at a family reunion, the first in a few years, and they kill everyone. Of course Castle's wife and son are left for last.
I thought this was a great setup for motivating Frank Castle as the spirit of vengeance. Upping the ante considerably from the Batman mythos of having his parents killed in front of him. I was also (pleasantly) suprised to see Roy Sheider appear briefly as Frank's father.
This great setup was immediately crushed when the assassins come upon Castle, shoot him repeatedly in the chest, douse a pier in gasoline and blow it up with Frank on it. He is blown into the ocean and presumed to be dead. Hours later Frank washes ashore, is found by a local guy who the other locals believe is into Voodoo, and over a couple of months is healed of his injuries.
Right there, I had a "let me get this straight" moment: Multiple gunshots to the chest, the concussive force of an explosion, he lies untreated and bleeding for hours, but a voodoo guy nurses him back to health without hospitalization.
From this point on I can't help but look at this as junk.
Cut to Castle (who shall heretofore be referred to as "The Punisher") setting up his base of operation in an old warehouse semi-converted to a ratty living space. Of course also living in the building is a hottie who for some unexplained reason is roomates with a couple of guys who look like they would still be living in their parent's basement watching Star Trek if their parents hadn't kicked them out. We have shots of him building his armored car and hiding weapons all over his living space. I wondered why he would hide weapons everywhere if he was planning on taking the fight to the enemy, but I digress.
The film actually got a bit creative in how The Punisher set things in place for part of his revenge. Instead of a frontal assault, he planted seeds that would grow into mistrust between Travolta, his wife, and his right hand man. Not a bad idea, but I actually thought considering the tone of the rest of the film that it got a bit convoluted. In the end of course, it worked at destroying Travolta's family from within.
Finally, at the end we got some more of what the target audience for this film paid to see: Stuff blowing up and plenty of high caliber gunfire. This bought the movie a few points for me, but then right at the end they pull way back for a completely cheesy Punisher logo shot that I'm sure was supposed to elicit a collective "Cool!" from the audience, but got no more than a groan out of me.
I really thought that Thomas Jane was miscast as The Punisher. Sure, he was buff, but he didn't pull off the dark, obsessed, ex-special forces thing for me. He tried to do it by talking in a semi-whisper, but it just didn't work. Another thing that didn't work was setting this thing in Tampa, Florida. Why Tampa? Why not just make it New York City? That really would have fit the film much better. Sure it's typical, but what in this film wasn't? Oh, and I forgot to mention the soundtrack... right off the start it sounded like it came from a bad TV movie. Again here was something that if done differently could have at least made the movie work a bit better, but didn't.
There was a seed of a good movie in there somewhere, but unfortunately it stayed buried and never saw the light of day.